“I killed him with love in my heart”: the complex and painful tragedies at the heart of assisted suicide

Vaughan Roberts | May 18th 2017

In 2008, Frances Inglis, injected her son Tom with a massive overdose of heroin, which ended his life. Tom had become brain-damaged, after an accident; he was paralysed, doubly incontinent and unable to communicate. Francis, a mother of three who worked with adults and children with learning and physical disabilities, considered what she did a “mercy killing”. In court, she admitted killing him, saying, “I did it with love in my heart”—as his mother, she couldn’t bear to see him in that state. She was convicted of murder and given a life sentence. Frances was released after serving five years in prison.

Around the same time, Kay Gilderdale was also in court. Her 31-year-old daughter Lynn had been paralysed since she was 14. In frequent agony, she received a constant supply of the painkiller morphine through a syringe driver into her veins. But, unlike Tom Inglis in the previous story, Lynn was able to communicate through sign language, and participated in online forums through a hand-held computer. She laid bare her frustrations, describing her “miserable excuse for a life” and adding, “I can’t keep hanging on to an ever-diminishing hope that I might one day be well again”.

One night she pleaded with her mother for over an hour to end her life. Kay surrendered to her wishes and gave her daughter extra doses of morphine, which Lynn self-administered. When the dose did not prove fatal, Kay injected her with more morphine, and pumped three syringes of air into her veins. Lynn eventually died of morphine poisoning. A jury found Kay not guilty of attempted murder, but she was convicted of the lesser charge of aiding and abetting suicide. The sentence was suspended, so she walked free from court.

Kate Cheney, 85, had terminal cancer and told her doctor that she wanted assisted suicide, which is legal in her home state of Oregon, USA. The doctor was concerned that she didn’t meet the required criteria for mental competence because of dementia, so he declined to write the requested prescription and instead referred her to a psychiatrist, as required by law. She was accompanied to the psychiatric consultation by her daughter. The psychiatrist found that Kate had a loss of short-term memory, and reported that it appeared that her daughter had more interest in Cheney’s assisted suicide than did the patient herself. He wrote in his report that while the assisted suicide seemed consistent with Kate’s values, “she does not seem to be explicitly pushing for this”.

He also determined that Kate did not have the “very high capacity required to weigh options about assisted suicide”, and therefore declined to authorize the lethal prescription.

Reports suggest that Kate seemed to accept the psychiatrist’s verdict, but that her daughter did not. Her daughter viewed the guidelines protecting her mother’s life as obstacles, and in a press interview she called them a “roadblock” to Kate’s right to die, and demanded a second opinion. This was provided by a clinical psychologist, who expressed concern about familial pressure, writing that Kate’s decision to die “may be influenced by her family’s wishes”. Despite these reservations, the psychologist determined that Kate was competent to choose death. She was given pills, which she later took to end her own life.

This case is one of many that has given concern—in places where assisted suicide is legal—that the process is open to abuse. It may be possible to circumvent safeguards by “shopping” for an agreeable professional, and there is a real danger of family pressure.

Stories such as these appear regularly in the media in the context of the ongoing discussions about whether assisted suicide should be made legal. They illustrate the complexity of the subject and the potential dangers associated with the relaxation of the law. But, above all, they remind us that behind the moral and legal debates are real people facing extremely difficult circumstances. It may be that you know that all too well from your own experience, perhaps because you, or someone you love, suffers from a terrible progressive condition, such as Alzheimer’s, or has received a terminal diagnosis.

As I was preparing to write Assisted Suicide, my own father was told that he had terminal brain cancer, and he died a few months later. That has meant that I have not only been thinking about the issues raised in this book, but have also been very much living them as I have been writing. The whole experience has strengthened my conviction that assisted suicide should be firmly resisted, but it has also given me a more personal insight into the intense pain involved in the circumstances that often trigger the discussion.

Many people live with a desire to end their lives. Perhaps you or someone close to you is one of them, whether because of illness, mental distress, a concern not to be a burden to others or fear that a progressive condition will make life unbearable. We all know in principle that we are mortal and that death is inevitable, but there are times when those realities especially press upon us. What the apostle Peter says in his letter resonates with us all:

"All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, and the flower falls…" (1 Peter 1 v 24)

The question is: should others be free to help us end our lives? How can we navigate this complex area filled with heart-wrenching stories and painful choices? Peter points us towards the source of the help we need in the words that finish his sentence:

"… but the word of the Lord endures for ever."

Read more in Assisted Suicide by Vaughan Roberts - designed to brief Christians and help them think through the personal and ethical issues around assisted dying.

Vaughan Roberts

Vaughan Roberts is a popular conference speaker, Rector of St Ebbe's Church, Oxford, and Director of the Proclamation Trust. He is also a member of the executive committee of 9:38 Ministries, and the author of many books, including Talking Points: Transgender, God's Big Picture, and Battles Christians Face.

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